Going Too Fast

Amtrak Cascades crashes on inaugural run

12/19/2017, 1:18 p.m.
The Amtrak train bound for Portland and Seattle making its first ever run along a faster new route was hurtling ...
On its first ever run along a faster new route, an Amtrak Cascades train bound for Portland derailed on a curve and plunged off an overpass onto I-5 south of Seattle Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 70 others. (AP photo)

The Amtrak train bound for Portland and Eugene making its first ever run along a faster new route was hurtling 50 mph over the speed limit when it jumped the track and plunged off an overpass south of Seattle Monday, killing at least three people, injuring dozens more and crushing two vehicles.

Bella Dinh-Zarr, a National Transportation Safety Board member, reported several hours after the crash that the data recorder in the rear locomotive showed the train was going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it derailed along a curve, spilling some of its cars onto I-5 below.

Dinh-Zarr said it is not yet known what caused the train to run off the rails and too early to say why it was going so fast. Investigators are looking into whether the engineer was distracted by the presence of an employee-in-training in the locomotive, a federal official said Tuesday. In previous wrecks, investigators looked at whether the engineer was distracted or disabled.

The train, with 85 passengers and crew members, was making the inaugural run along a fast new bypass route that was created by refurbishing freight tracks alongside I-5. The 15-mile, $180.7 million project was aimed at speeding up service by bypassing a route with a number of curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.

Positive train control - technology that can automatically slow or stop a speeding train - wasn't in use on this stretch of track, according to Amtrak President Richard Anderson.

Regulators have pressing railroads for years to install such technology, but the deadline has been extended repeatedly at the industry's request and is now the end of 2018.

The 7:34 a.m. accident left mangled train cars up on top of each other, with one hanging precariously over the freeway. The screech and clang of metal were followed by silence, then screams, as the injured cried out to rescuers and motorists pulled over and rushed to help.

More than 70 people were injured, 10 of them seriously. A Portland surgeon on his way to a shopping trip in Seattle stopped to aid victims at the scene of the derailment. Dr. Nate Selden, chair of neurological surgery at Oregon Health and Sciences University, said he and his son were two of hundreds trying to help survivors.

He assisted emergency medical professionals to apply first aid and assess the status of each victim.

Train passenger Emma Shafer found herself at a 45-degree angle, staring at the seats in front of her that had come loose and swung around.

"It felt oddly silent after the actual crashing," she said. "Then there was people screaming because their leg was messed up. ... I don't know if I actually heard the sirens, but they were there. A guy was like, 'Hey, I'm Robert. We'll get you out of here.'"

One of the dead was identified as Zack Willhoite, a customer service employee at a local transit agency and a railroad buff excited to be on the first passenger run of the new route. He was a member of All Aboard Washington, an organization of rail advocates.

In 2015, an Amtrak train traveling at twice the 50 mph speed limit ran off the rails along a sharp curve in Philadelphia, killing eight people. Investigators concluded the engineer was distracted by reports over the radio of another train getting hit by a rock.

In the Washington state crash, speed signs were posted two miles before the speed zone changed, according to Kimberly Reason of Sound Transit, the Seattle-area transit agency that owns the tracks.

Eric Corp, a councilman for the small town of DuPont near the derailment site, said he rode the train with about 30 or so dignitaries and others on a special trip Friday before the service opened to the public Monday.

"Once we were coming up on that curve, the train slowed down considerably," he said.

The Amtrak Cascades service that runs from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene is jointly owned by the Washington and Oregon transportation departments. Amtrak operates the service for the two states as a contractor and is responsible for day-to-day operations.

The Amtrak schedule called for the train to leave Seattle around 6 a.m. and arrive in Portland about 3 1/2 hours later.

--Associated Press